parkrun and Sport England launch project to get more people with visual impairments participating at parkrun

Sport England has invested £142,500 of National Lottery funding in parkrun to launch a pilot scheme for VI people, to help them start running, walking or volunteering at events, to meet new people and learn new skills. The money will also go towards encouraging more people to volunteer as VI running guides.

While many VI participants and volunteer guides are already enjoying parkrun, the aim is to use the cash to boost the number of VI people that are to take part.

Alison Mead was 43 when she lost her sight, following a brain haemorrhage and four strokes.

Before becoming blind, the Watford woman was a keen sportswoman, and regularly swam and played badminton and table tennis.  After becoming blind she quickly lost her confidence. Sport no longer seemed like an option, and she noticed she’d put on a lot of weight.

That is until she met Roz McGinty, 43, a volunteer guide runner, via British Triathlon, and took up parkrun – a 5k event held weekly in hundreds of parks across the country for runners, joggers and walkers. They are open to all, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.

“I contacted British Triathlon looking for a way to take part in sport again, and they put me in touch with a wonderful woman called Roz,” Alison explained.

“Roz had not had any training as a guide so we just went for a few runs on our own along a path near my house to get used to running together. Guides are often just as nervous as me, maybe even more so when we first run together.”

In November 2014, Roz guided Alison at her first parkrun in St Albans, and the pair were hooked. Alison has now taken part in 49 parkruns and volunteered as both a barcode scanner and course marshal.

“Not being able to see where I am is a bit unnerving sometimes but the enjoyment of running is so much greater than the nerves,” said Alison, now 54.

“I rely on sound – listening to the directions from my guide and feeling what I can through the tether or contact – and I only know who the runners or volunteers are when they tell me. I'm not worried about tripping or falling when I run because bumps and bruises are more likely to happen when I'm walking along the street.

“I run because it makes me feel physically and mentally stronger and is helping me lose weight. I have arthritis that doesn't hurt as much if I exercise. I am asthmatic so running helps me control my breathing. I have depression which sometimes gets really bad, but running helps me cope.”

Alison is a glowing example of the impact that parkrunning can have on quality of life. But she is an exception to the general trend when it comes to people with visual impairments (VI) keeping active.

Around 1.49 million people – or 10 per cent of disabled people – in England have a visual impairment. However, only 9.8 per cent of visually impaired people are active once a week. A Sport England’s Active People Survey shows that VI people are the least likely disability group to be active.

This is an 18-month project, to be delivered in two stages. The first £11,250 of the pot is a hard commitment and £131,250 has been offered in principal over two stages, each subject to parkrun meeting specific conditions – which is why organisers are encouraging as many people as possible to get involved.

In the second stage of this project, taster days, community engagement events and volunteer days, will be held across the country. parkrun will also support a volunteer network of guide runners that can be matched to VI participants. There’s no need for any previous running experience, and many people – guides and runners – already start off by walking some of or the whole course.

In instances where a VI person does not know the venue or is not confident accessing it, volunteers may provide assistance in getting there. Consideration will also be given to people who need their guide dogs looked after during the event.

Based on the success of these activities, parkrun hopes to roll out a programme to encourage more visually impaired people to start or improve their running or to volunteer.

parkrun UK’s Head of Event Delivery Helen Hood said: “This is an incredibly exciting project that will put parkrun on the map for many blind and visually impaired people who didn’t realise how accessible our events are.

“Joining the parkrun community will also provide an excellent platform to forge new friendships and open doors to many other life-enhancing opportunities beyond a Saturday morning.”

Sport England’s Lisa O’Keefe said: “Sport England is delighted to be working with parkrun on this initiative, designed to make it possible for more visually impaired people to join the growing numbers of people regularly going out for a run.

“So whether you want to volunteer as a guide runner, are visually impaired or know someone that is, we would be really grateful if you could spread the word about parkrun – and come down and have a go.”

parkrun also holds junior 2k parkruns on Sundays for those between the ages of 4 and 14. There is no official VI pilot for young people, but organisers are keen to respond to any demand for guide runners for this age group, too.

parkrun would be delighted to hear from any visually impaired people who currently take part in parkrun, using the email address parkrunukresearch@parkrun.com.

What if I want to volunteer as a running guide?

Volunteer guide runners can be put off signing up for a number of reasons, for example time commitments, nervousness about responsibility, or believing they are not fit enough.

However, parkrun is aimed at all ability levels – including those that would prefer to walk the course. Organisers will pair-up a VI participant with someone suitable.

Volunteers don’t need to worry about dedicating a lot of time to guide running, and they don’t need experience.

They can contribute as much or as little time as they like. In many cases, it will simply involve turning up 10 or 15 minutes early for a quick practice before the start of the event.

Case studies: 

Philip Allen, 50, Stockport – parkrunner 

In summer 2010 I had a serious cycling accident. I was airlifted to hospital and remained hospitalised for some months. In addition to several broken bones, my main injury was a severe, diffuse, axonal, brain injury. This has left me partially sighted and extremely hard of hearing.

I have run for many years, albeit, not competitively, to any significant extent. My home parkrun is Bramhall, although I have participated in a number of others. I ran in its first ever event and returned as soon as I felt able, following my accident.

On 15 August 2015 I completed my 200th parkrun. I have also volunteered as a course marshal on 23 occasions. I would recommend to any VI person that they consider trying parkrun.

There are a sufficient range of volunteering activities and flexibility on the part of organisers/runners as to render visual difficulty, of little significance, in this context.

That said, I find the idea of telling runners to run in a particular direction, while carrying a white cane, rather ironic! Nevertheless, no one seems to mind and a few laugh about it!

In my own case, I seek (and am given) tasks and a physical position that I am confident about. I always ask to marshal in the same place.

This is the first marshalling point and it is easily accessed. It is also at the top of a hill, such that encouragement to runners who seem to be struggling, running up it, appears to be appreciated. 

Louise Simpson, 32, Essex  parkrunner

I have a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) so have been completely blind since birth.

My first parkrun was Leeds in May 2009. I really enjoyed it. Everyone was friendly and encouraging. It was well organised and the registration and results process was simple.

My biggest challenge is always getting to the start line so I am very grateful when people offer to pick me up from a bus/train/tube station. I am usually able to find a willing guide, often through posting on an event’s social media pages and contacting the event team through their website. Having no prior experience is not a problem – it is very straightforward - I just hold their arm and away we go!

I often run at Mile End and anyone familiar with the course will know there are some wooden posts at the right turn to join the canal path. It’s very tight for two people to get through side by side so we have to tuck in and make a little swerve. Unfortunately, on one day, we got it all wrong and I ended up crashing in to a post. It might not sound funny, but it was! I’m just glad that I didn’t end up in the water!

Roslyn (Roz) McGinty, 43, Herefordshire – guide runner

I was approached by the BTF (British Triathlon Federation) and asked if I would consider guiding a local visually impaired women – Alison Mead - who was keen to get involved in triathlon.

Alison lives relatively close to me and so I agreed that I would arrange to meet her and see how I could help.

We exchanged e-mails for a while before we met. I made it clear that my time was relatively restricted given that I am a long distance triathlete and also that I work long hours. I was hesitant to make a promise that in reality I could not deliver. It seemed to me that Alison was extremely grateful even if I could only commit to helping her once a month.

Alison expressed an interest in taking part in a triathlon and as she has a great set up at home with a treadmill and an exercise bike I knew that this would be feasible.

I had no training but I had Alison who was a brilliant teacher! She has a little rubber device with a handle at either end. We used to just hold a handle each but over time I have adapted to putting it on my elbow.

I cannot recommend guiding enough. It is just so rewarding. I used to hate running 5k but these have truly been the best 5ks I have ever run.

Alison has lots of dreams about the future and events she would love to do if the opportunity arose. I would dearly love to help her make these dreams come true. I also have lots of ideas up my sleeve which Alison will definitely be agreeable to but I cannot divulge them until I am 100% sure I can keep to my word so on that count you will need to just watch this space.

Terry Rodgers, 61, Nottinghamshire – parkrunner

I suffered a head injury many years ago, which resulted in me having many sensory problems (hearing/sight/memory etc). I then had a stroke in 2010, after which I lost my sight.

Before my health problems I was a very experienced runner, but had given up on ever being able to run again until I was invited to parkrun by friends to walk around the course. Upon completion, the organisers asked if I would like to come again and asked for volunteers to walk/jog with me.

I knew that my local parkrun only existed because of volunteers turning up to ensure runners like myself were safe, so volunteered in the hope that I could help others as they helped me.

I get a real sense of pleasure out of helping those who have helped me. The parkrun community to me is like a family and although not running, I get to meet and talk to many, many other people from all walks of life. parkrun has allowed me to forge real friendships as well as receiving many offers from runners wishing to guide me. parkrun has certainly helped me develop my confidence and communication skills.

I would say to other people who are visuallyimpaired to contact their local parkrun, where they will be welcomed with open arms. Assistance will be arranged if needed and they will be able to discuss what role is best for them to undertake - and there is ALWAYS a role they can do! They will undoubtedly make new friends and definitely enjoy the experience.

There's also the cafe afterwards to look forward too as well!